Pay To Be Saved
I call it the Disaster Capitalism Complex. Whatever you might need in a serious crunch, these contractors can provide it: generators, water tanks, cots, port-a-potties, mobile homes, communications systems, helicopters, medicine, men with guns.
This state-within-a-state has been built almost exclusively with money from public contracts, including the training of its staff (overwhelmingly former civil servants, politicians and soldiers). Yet it is all privately owned; taxpayers have absolutely no control over it or claim to it. So far, that reality hasn't sunk in because when these companies are getting their bills paid by government contracts, the Disaster Capitalism Complex provides its services to the public free of charge.
But here's the catch: The US government is going broke, in no small part thanks to this kind of loony spending. The national debt is $8-trillion; the federal budget deficit is at least $260-billion. That means that sooner rather than later, the contracts are going to dry up. And no one knows this better than the companies themselves. Ralph Sheridan, chief executive of Good Harbor Partners, one of hundreds of new counter-terrorism companies, explains that "expenditures by governments are episodic and come in bubbles." Insiders call it the "homeland security bubble."
When it bursts, firms such as Bechtel, Fluor and Blackwater will lose their primary revenue stream. They will still have all their high-tech gear giving them the ability to respond to disasters--while the government will have let that precious skill whither away--but now they will sell back the tax-funded infrastructure at whatever price they choose.
Here's a snapshot of what could be in store in the not-too-distant future: helicopter rides off of rooftops in flooded cities ($5,000 a pop, $7,000 for families, pets included), bottled water and "meals ready to eat" ($50 per person, steep, but that's supply and demand) and a cot in a shelter with a portable shower (show us your biometric ID--developed on a lucrative Homeland Security contract--and we'll track you down later with the bill. Don't worry, we have ways: Spying has been outsourced too).
The model, of course, is the US healthcare system, in which the wealthy can access best-in-class treatment in spa-like environments while 46 million Americans lack health insurance. As emergency response, the model is already at work in the global AIDS pandemic: Private-sector prowess helped produce lifesaving drugs (with heavy public subsidies), then set prices so high that the vast majority of the world's infected cannot afford treatment.
If that is the corporate world's track record on slow-motion disasters, why should we expect different values to govern fast-moving disasters, like hurricanes or even terrorist attacks? It's worth remembering that as Israeli bombs pummeled Lebanon not so long ago, the US government initially tried to charge its citizens for the cost of their own evacuations. And of course anyone without a Western passport in Lebanon had no hope of rescue.
One year ago, New Orleans's working-class and poor citizens were stranded on their rooftops waiting for help that never came, while those who could pay their way escaped to safety. The country's political leaders claim it was all some terrible mistake, a breakdown in communication that is being fixed. Their solution is to go even further down the catastrophic road of "private-sector solutions."
Unless a radical change of course is demanded, New Orleans will prove to be a glimpse of a dystopic future, a future of disaster apartheid in which the wealthy are saved and everyone else is left behind.
A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times.